Monster mash: A picture worth a thousand squirms

In honor of Halloween, I’m spending the days leading up to All Hallow’s Eve pitting off foreign horror movies against their American remakes.   Today we look at a movie whose Americanization has been all over cable recently:

Shutter versus Shutter

Warning. Spoilers! I’m typically assuming you’ve seen the American version of the movie, so hopefully I’m not spoiling much.

The original story. One night in Bangkok (sorry, I couldn’t resist), Jane and her boyfriend Tun hit a woman with their car.   At Tun’s insistence, they leave the body on the road and drive off.   Shortly thereafter, Tun, a photographer, notices strange white shadows and ghostly faces appearing in his portraits; a guilty Jane suspects they are images of the woman they ran down. However, as the days go on, Tun experiences ever more horrible things — a severe pain in his neck that will not go away, visions of the girl at his apartment and his studio, strange voices calling him a liar — and so Jane looks into locating the girl to put her spirit at rest.   Taking pictures at her university, she captures on film an image of the ghost girl, and learns that her name is Natre… and that she was Tun’s ex-girlfriend.   They visit Natre’s mother to find that Natre had returned home after their break-up and committed suicide shortly thereafter; moreover, mom (who could not bear losing her) had been keeping the corpse all along.   After a night of further haunting torment for Tun (at one point causing him to fall off a fire escape and break his arm), they convince mom to cremate Natre’s remains.   However, Natre’s ghost still turns up in their photos and, Jane learns, seems fixated on Tun’s bookshelf.   There, she finds a hidden roll of negatives that, when developed, reveal that Natre had been raped by Tun’s friends and that Tun photographed the event (in an effort to have something with which to disgrace Natre if she ever went public about the attack).   Disgusted, Jane leaves.   Knowing the haunting is not over, Tun takes Polaroids of his apartment trying to locate her… only to find (in an accidental self-portrait) that she’s been clinging about his neck the whole time.

Freaked out beyond words, Tun tries to remove Natre from his neck, and in a panic falls out his apartment window.   The movie ends with Jane looking in on a severely bandaged, slumped, and catatonic Tun… who (as we see in the reflection of the window) still has Natre wrapped around his neck.

The two movies. The 2004 Thai movie Shutter is a wonderfully creepy little movie, and was a best film nominee at the Bangkok International Film Festival.   In fact, it was so well received in Thailand and Singapore that it’s been remade at least four times (as Photo in 2006 in Telugu, as Sivi in 2007 in Tamil, as Shutter in 2008 in English, and as Click in 2010 in Hindi).   As a result, you can expect it to be good and frightening.

It’s not particularly visually exciting: indeed, its world is pretty stark and almost black-and-white (or, more accurately, green-and-white).   It also plays up a number of Asian horror cliches (the onryo ghost, the black hair spewing from the water taps, etc.).   However, that being said, it executes a number of sequences (the flash-bulb attack and the ladder escape being noteworthy) with enough flair to make it one of my personal favorites.   My favorite scene is when Jane takes her camera to the university to catch a glimpse of Natre: although she is in an open, brightly lit science classroom, the sense of otherworldly claustrophobia that sets in when Jane captures a glimpse of the ghost in her Polaroids is unshakable and creepy as hell.

Moreover, Ananda Everingham, the actor who plays Tun, does an excellent job making him a likable, empathetic character throughout the movie.   (That he also looks like a Thai version of Orlando Blume shouldn’t hurt with the ladies either.) Although he’s the one who originally suggests the hit-and-run (and is therefore the most culpable in the accident), we never feel like her deserves to be haunted anymore than Jane does.   Even as the reality of Tun’s involvement with Natre is disclosed, we never really hate Tun, so much as feel sorry for the choices her made and the lives he squandered away.   He gets his just desserts at the end, but we’re not vindictively delighted about it.

The American remake, for reasons I cannot fathom, decides to move the local to Japan and to turn everyone in it into dicks. Tun is re-imagined as a big-shot photographer Ben who is familiar with Japanese customs but whose new wife (still called Jane), dragged across the planet to join him,   is not.   I found Ben is almost instantly unlikable: he tends to almost completely ignore her whenever his friends (or sexy assistant) are around; moreover, his friends act like dickish frat boys who use their American modeling contacts to score with the girls on the photoshoots.   I should point out that in the original, Tun’s friends were also dickish frat boys, but they were also just out of college, and so I can forgive them that.   It’s clear that Ben and his cadre have been out in the real world for a while, but are still infantile putzes.

For the most part, the story and the scares are the same — there’s the neck pain and flash-bulb attack and the ghosts in the pictures — but whereas the original relied on fairly minimalist techniques to generate this chills, the reboot’s versions are loud, slick, gory… and utterly non-scary.   For example, the American version envisions the ghost as a much more homicidal specter: in the original, Tun’s friends eventually commit suicide out of guilt, but in the remake the ghost dispatches them in various bloody ways.   This doesn’t make the movie any scarier, but it does mean we get to have a lot more gross-out make-up, like shattered eyeballs or bloodied finger tips.   Similarly, whereas the hotel haunting sequence in the original mostly involves Tun repeatedly seeing/fleeing from Natre (and yet unable to escape the fourth floor), culminating in what I find to be an awesome ladder sequence, the reboot instead gores it up with nasty makeup (such as the ghost’s hideously boil-covered body, or its unpleasant Frenching ability using its (poorly rendered) CGI tongue) and ends it on a whimper.   Or, to end the movie, in the original Tun accidentally falls out of his window in a(n understandably) frenzied attempt to shake the ghost off his neck, whereas in the reboot, Ben (in a complete lack of understanding of the physics of ghosts) opts to electrocute it instead, and ends up lobotomizing himself.

The verdict. The American version is slick, but soulless.   The Thai version genuinely creeps me out.   The original wins.

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